Antonio Campos’ new compelling HBO Max miniseries The Staircase provides further insight into one of America’s most perplexing true crime cases.
HBO Max’s new 8-part miniseries The Staircase follows the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette) and the 16-year judicial battle of her accused murderer, husband Michael Peterson (Colin Firth). These real-life events were previously documented by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (played here by Vincent Vermignon), a French-filmmaker, between 2001 and 2004. Lestrade went on to revive his documentary about the Peterson case in 2012 and 2016. His complete work can now be viewed as one series on Netflix also under the title The Staircase. Although this documentary was ambitious, the director of HBO Max’s drama The Staircase, Antonio Campos, revisits Michael’s story through an even wider lens. If you thought you knew about the Peterson case before, it’s about to get a whole lot more complicated.
The Staircase’s first episode establishes the series as working on three different timelines. The first starts in 2017, when Michael is preparing for what may possibly be his final court hearing. The second starts immediately after Kathleen’s death, and the third looks at events that took place leading up to December 9th, 2001, the day Kathleen died. This is undoubtedly a bold move, but perhaps, with so much to cover, the only viable way of putting it all into an 8-part series. Arguably, it doesn’t always work as without knowing much about the case previously, viewers may get a little lost. This story already has so many moving parts, spanning multiple countries with a plethora of characters who come and go. Michael and Kathleen’s blended family alone consisted of five children from three different mothers. By diving this up into three different timelines, Campos is demanding viewers have a sharp memory.
What is immediately evident, and one of The Staircase’s strengths, is the attention to detail given to each set piece, and each characterisation, to replicate the story that the documentary captured. Putting the documentary footage and the scenes from the drama side-by-side would result in the hardest game of spot the difference you’ve ever played. This is true for Colin Firth‘s depiction of Michael Peterson, as by adopting Peterson’s distinctive accent, key catchphrases and physicality, the similarities are uncanny. Firth presents a perplexing character, who makes it impossible for viewers to determine guilt.
Although Peterson has always been a dividing character, Campos does make Peterson easier to dislike. In the documentary, Peterson’s anger is hinted at, but never seen. Whereas in the drama, he erupts into a generous number of explosive outbursts. It helps distance Peterson from the passive, frail character we saw in the documentary, and as someone who could commit a crime of passion if caught at the wrong moment.
Firth is also surrounded by an excellent supporting cast. Michael Stuhlbarg holds the audience’s attention as Peterson’s defence attorney David Rudolf. Stuhlbarg mirrors the Rudolf we see in the documentary, who is authoritative, always concise, and seemingly unfeeling. Whether he is a good lawyer or not is debatable, but his dedication to the job can’t be disputed. Praise also goes to Sophie Turner and Odessa Young’s depictions of Margaret and Martha Ratliff, respectively. For the real-life Ratliff sisters, it must feel like looking in a mirror. Beyond their physical likeness to the sisters, they show the unravelling of lives punctuated by trauma with nuance and conviction.
In the documentary, Michael’s children are seen as nothing more than devout believers of their father’s innocence. However, here we see them fleshed out as multi-faceted human beings, who have lives beyond this tragedy, despite it being at the centre of their world. Patrick Schwarzenegger and Dane DeHaan, who play Michael’s biological sons Todd and Clayton Peterson, have more of a challenge as they have less of a physical resemblance to the real subjects. Nonetheless, they effectively portray two men who feel a responsibility to their family whilst battling their own demons.
In The Staircase, Antonio Campos gives the audience an opportunity to get to know Kathleen Peterson, whereas the documentary preoccupied itself with portraying Michael as the victim. Here, we get to see Kathleen, although sparingly, as a multi-dimensional person, with a career and a life. Toni Colette portrays Kathleen as a doting mother and wife, who worked hard to provide for her family, and did her best to balance all her responsibilities. She is portrayed as flawed, of course, but that’s what makes her real. As always, Toni Collette gives a powerful performance and brings Kathleen to life with vibrancy, in a way that the documentary simply did not manage to do. Whether it is an accurate representation of Kathleen Peterson, only her loved ones will be able to tell.
In our review of Lestrade’s true crime documentary The Staircase, we spoke about the documentary being conducted with bias, for reasons such as ‘the hug shared between a film crew member, perhaps Lestrade himself, and Peterson in his holding cell.’ Well, like we said, it’s about to get a whole lot more complicated, as HBO Max’s The Staircase shines a light on a much bigger issue. Michael Peterson began a relationship with The Staircase’s documentary editor, Sophie Brunet (Juliette Binoche) whilst he served time in prison for the murder of his wife. The integral part an editor plays in shaping the narrative of a story cannot be underestimated, and with Brunet’s confessed love for Michael, it’s easy to believe that she manipulated the footage to portray Michael in a way that reflected her own belief in his innocence. Their relationship and Lestrade’s failure to mention it in the documentary casts an even darker shadow of doubt on the integrity of Michael’s story.
Putting aside our personal views on whether Michael Peterson is a guilty man or not, HBO Max’s The Staircase builds upon Lestrade’s initial intentions when making the documentary about the case. In a conversation with a colleague, Lestrade says he ‘want[s] to show something strong. About justice and how it truly is.’ Campos also focuses on the cracks in the judicial system. Whether it’s the viewer’s opinion that Michael is guilty or not, did the prosecution prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Michael killed Kathleen? Their case largely relied on a missing blow poke as the murder weapon, although it had been in Peterson’s garage the whole time untouched. Testimony from Duane Deaver (Myke Holmes) was given about the blood spatter on Peterson’s shorts, claiming the pattern of blood could only have appeared by Peterson standing over Kathleen and beating her. Deaver was soon exposed for frequently falsifying evidence. A scene between North Carolina’s chief medical examiner Dr. Radisch (Susan Pourfar) and a member of the DA shows coercion to rule the cause of death a homicide. Although we are not experts, this is surely enough to arouse reasonable doubt. In this way, Campos’ The Staircase does act as an exposé on the corruption of the American judicial system.
As a television series, The Staircase is a gripping true crime drama with excellent performances from a star-studded cast. Although it suffers from structural issues, it still pulls you in with plot twists around every corner. Its accuracy can only be measured by its comparison to the existing documentary footage, which is questionable in itself, but with its dedication to detail, the 8-part miniseries does feel like an achievement. The finale leaves us with only a handful more answers, but a million more questions. It is obvious that Michael Peterson isn’t a very likeable man. He’s arrogant, he’s a liar, and he manipulates everyone around him to get results that serve him best. But does this make him a killer?
The Staircase is now available to watch on HBO Max in the US, and on Sky and Now worldwide.